Russia Shouldn’t Get to Veto Western Military Aid
By John Herbst, David J. Kramer, and William Taylor
February 24, 2023
For Ukrainians, the past 12 months have been both a year from hell and a year of hope. They have lost thousands of their fellow citizens, seen millions more displaced, and watched as their country’s economy was devastated by Russia’s unprovoked invasion. But Ukrainians have demonstrated remarkable resilience and courage, successfully rallying to defend their independence under the inspiring leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin expected a swift victory, his forces encountered stiff resistance and suffered major losses. Russia’s massive casualties and plummeting morale mean that a Ukrainian victory—defined as driving all Russian troops off Ukrainian soil, Crimea included—is in sight.
Ukraine’s fighters are among the world’s finest. To finish the job, however, Kyiv will need more Western support. Ukrainians face an opponent with great quantitative advantages in soldiers, tanks, planes, missiles, and overall firepower. To break through Russian lines and cut the land bridge to Crimea, Ukraine needs more advanced weapons from the West, including rocket systems that can shoot missiles up to 185 miles, sufficient tanks, and Western-made aircraft.
The United States and some other NATO members are wary of providing these weapons to Ukraine, citing fears that additional assistance could lead to an escalation of the conflict—and even the potential use of nuclear weapons. But for all his tough talk, Putin has given no meaningful indication that Russia will go nuclear; quite the contrary. Kyiv and Western governments have repeatedly crossed Putin’s redlines, yet the Kremlin has never even put Russia’s arsenal on real alert.
Western leaders are also concerned that should they keep supplying Ukraine, they will deplete their own stockpiles and alarm their taxpayers with spiraling costs. But arming Ukraine is an efficient and essential way of preserving global peace and their own safety. If Putin succeeds in keeping any Ukrainian territory, it will set a very dangerous precedent: powerful states can forcibly take land from weaker ones. The defense expenditures for the United States and other NATO countries would have to rise to levels that dwarf the current assistance they provide to Ukraine. Ukrainians, then, are fighting not just to save themselves but also to protect fundamental international principles and the freedom of others. The smart and economical way to provide security in Europe is to defeat the Kremlin’s aggression, so the West must provide Ukraine with the required weapons.
It is difficult to overstate just how poorly the war has gone for Russia. Instead of a quick victory, Russian forces were routed outside most major Ukrainian cities they tried to capture. According to the latest estimates, more than 200,000 Russian troops have been killed and wounded in
action, including an estimated 40,000 members of the Wagner mercenary outfit run by the Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. Hundreds of thousands of draft-age Russian men have fled the country since Putin launched a mobilization in the fall. And many of those drafted have deserted.
Putin has responded to Russia’s military struggles by frequently shuffling the generals in charge of the invasion. That is a sign that even the Kremlin recognizes that things have not gone according to plan. But these personnel changes have ultimately done little to improve results. Putin’s current war commander, for example, Valery Gerasimov, is the chief of staff of the Russian military, and he helped coordinate the original botched invasion. His predecessor, Sergey Surovikin, demoted by Putin despite his brutal methods, was perhaps the only Russian general to display tactical acumen, in ordering a controlled retreat in Kherson. Repeatedly shifting leaders is in character for Putin, who enjoys playing factions off one another. But the carousel has fostered dissension in the military’s ranks and between the military and Prigozhin’s forces, further undermining Russia’s battlefield performance. Moscow’s recent defeat outside the city of Vuhledar, for instance, where it lost scores of soldiers and armored vehicles, looks like a repeat of Russia’s failures on the road to Kyiv a year ago. The Kremlin is still making the same mistakes.
It isn’t just in Ukraine that Putin and his advisers have faced massive setbacks. The Kremlin’s assumptions about how the West would respond to the Russian invasion were also disastrously incorrect. Russia believed that the United States and Europe would not see eye to eye about the war and would give Kyiv only minimal assistance. Instead, the West quickly united behind providing enormous amounts of support, arming the country with artillery and various weapons systems that enabled the Ukrainian military to seize the initiative from the invaders. The West also imposed aggressive sanctions and export controls on Russia, devastating the country’s military-industrial complex. Russian arms production has now been so hampered by these restrictions (as well as by corruption) that Moscow is turning to Iran and North Korea for assistance—hardly a recipe for success.
Putin hoped he could get aid from China, issuing an ambitious joint statement with Chinese President Xi Jinping before the invasion promising a “no limits” partnership. He has gotten assistance. According to reporting by The Wall Street Journal, Beijing has provided some of the goods Russia needs for weapons production, including navigation equipment, jamming technology, and jet-fighter parts. But Putin has mostly been disappointed by Beijing’s offerings. U.S. officials recently expressed concern that Beijing might shift toward military assistance to Moscow, but so far, Putin has not gotten the weapons or help in overcoming sanctions, both of which he wanted. Instead, he has found himself selling hydrocarbons to China at bargain rates while receiving lectures from Xi about not threatening to use nuclear weapons. The Chinese do not even support Russia in United Nations votes; instead, they abstain.
Indeed, for Russia, almost everything is trending in the wrong direction. Moscow is continuing to lose to Kyiv in most of the country even though it has hundreds of thousands of new troops. (The exact number of soldiers, however, is unclear, and Russia’s figures are probably inflated). Given that its forces lack the necessary supplies and effective leadership, Russia’s gains have been minor and come at an immense human cost. The United States and Europe are continuing to ramp up their military assistance to Kyiv. European countries—which paid Russia some $135 billion in the past year for fossil fuels, far more than they provided to Ukraine in assistance—are finally reducing their dependence on Russian energy, curtailing the income Moscow needs to finance its war. And NATO is likely to admit Finland and Sweden, two states that once walked a careful line between Moscow and Washington. Russia’s standing and influence are at their lowest level in decades.
Although Ukraine may have the upper hand in its war of survival, it cannot yet finish the job. Ukraine is being pounded around the eastern city of Bakhmut by massive waves of soldiers, and other cities are also being targeted by Russian forces seeking to drive Ukrainians into submission. Putin has not and cannot drive Ukraine to surrender, but both countries’ losses are mounting, and Putin does not care about Russia’s own immense human costs. That means the attacks will continue until the West sends longer-range weapons that can hit Russian logistical hubs conveniently located just beyond the range of Ukraine’s high-mobility artillery rocket systems. Ukraine could launch a drive that cuts off the land bridge to Crimea with its current weapons stock, but such efforts would be more likely to succeed if the country receives more advanced weapons. Better supplies, in other words, would give Kyiv the edge needed to mount a campaign that could lead Russia’s war to collapse while reducing Ukrainian losses.
The West can help Kyiv by providing more modern heavy tanks, which will give Ukrainians the ability to break through Russian defenses—potentially delivering a shattering blow to Russia’s untrained, ill-equipped forces. Ukraine has said that it needs 300 or so tanks to make a difference, but so far, only 130 are on the way—and a good number of them are not set to arrive until next winter or later. NATO should work urgently to round out the totals with German-made Leopard tanks, of which NATO nations possess more than 2,000.
Ukraine also needs weapons the West has not agreed to provide. The country should receive U.S.-made surface-to-surface Army Tactical Missile Systems, which can shoot rockets up to 185 miles—enough to shut down the current bloody Russian offensive near Bakhmut and strike at Russian forces in Crimea. The West should also provide Ukraine with war planes, such as F-16s, which would allow Ukraine to launch an effective combined arms offensive. By cutting off Russia’s land bridge, which supplies Russian forces in Ukraine’s mainland south as well as in Crimea, these weapons would allow Ukraine to force Russian forces into retreating to Crimea. It would also make it very difficult for Putin to meet his military and civilian supply needs on the peninsula, especially if Ukraine destroyed the bridge from Russia to Crimea over the Kerch Strait. Putin has staked much of his legitimacy on taking the peninsula, so effectively cutting it off could cause a huge political problem for him at home.
The West is taking some steps to give Ukraine more advanced weaponry, including the tanks. The United Kingdom, for example, is now teaching Ukrainian pilots to fly its Typhoon fighter jets. London has even signaled that once the pilots are trained, it might simply give the necessary aircraft to Ukraine. Russia has repeatedly threatened to respond to such Western assistance by escalating the war, but by now, policymakers should be aware that these threats are hollow. Even as Ukraine and the West have passed the Kremlin’s various thresholds—inviting Finland and
Sweden into NATO, providing heavy weapons to Ukraine, striking Crimea, taking back territory that Russia illegally annexed—Putin has failed to follow through on his warnings. His announcement Tuesday that Russia would suspend its commitment to the New START arms control agreement, for example, was more theater than substance, since according to the U.S. State Department, Russia was already not in compliance with the accord. The only cost of the West’s delays has been to Ukrainians, who have died and suffered as the war continues.
The West needs to do more faster to tip the scales more decisively in Ukraine’s favor. NATO must drop its apprehension about triggering Putin and recognize that Ukraine has every right to use great force to stop the Kremlin’s invasion. That means Kyiv can continue its strikes on Russian bases in Crimea. For that matter, out of self-defense, it can hit Russian forces inside Belarus and Russia if those forces are lobbing attacks against Ukraine. Putin and his generals must understand that their troops have no sanctuary as long as they are engaged in hostilities against Ukrainians. The Russian military must be made to feel deeply uncomfortable—to the point where it is at risk of collapse.
But for Russian morale to truly tank, senior U.S. military officials, politicians, and outside analysts need to stop talking about negotiations with Russia. Such remarks are discouraging to Ukrainians and music to Russians’ ears, reinforcing the Kremlin’s belief that the West will suffer from Ukraine fatigue and eventually sue for peace. The United States and Europe must reassure Ukrainians that they remain firmly and unfailingly with them and disabuse Putin of hope that time is on Russia’s side. Biden’s visit to Kyiv Monday boosted Ukrainian morale and signaled to Moscow—and to any nervous Europeans—that the United States is not abandoning Ukraine. But saying, as Biden has repeatedly, that the West will help Ukraine for “as long as it takes” is not enough. The West should help Ukraine win, period. That means making clear there will be no return to normal with Russia as long as its troops remain in Ukraine.
In fact, there can also be no return to normal until Russia answers for the horrible things it has done to Ukraine, especially in towns and cities such as Bucha and Mariupol. Before the West eases any sanctions, the Kremlin must return all the Ukrainians captured or exiled to Russia, such as the thousands of Ukrainian children it has deported and forced to live with Russian families. The West must also ensure there is justice for the victims of war crimes and atrocities and that Russia pays reparations to cover the costs of reconstruction. Much of these funds can and should come from the Russian foreign hard-currency reserves frozen by the West, which total roughly $300 billion.
Putin’s invasion is one of the greatest threats to international security since World War II. It almost caused a global food crisis last summer when Russia blocked Ukrainian ships loaded with agricultural exports. It has driven up energy prices. And it has brought large-scale interstate conquest back to the global stage, jeopardizing the norms of sovereignty that help maintain international peace. If Putin succeeds in keeping even part of Ukraine’s territory, Xi might think that he can get away with invading Taiwan. Putin could also set his sights on attacking another state in the region such as Moldova or seeding more generalized chaos around the world.
But if Russia is soundly defeated and if NATO retains its unity, Xi will think twice before attacking Taiwan. Putin would be less able to cause mayhem elsewhere, including in Syria and Africa. Within Europe, a Ukrainian win would weaken Putin’s ability to continue his support for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s illegitimate regime and embolden democratic forces in Belarus: The Russian military would be so weakened that invading Belarus to prop up Lukashenko or some authoritarian substitute would be a struggle.
With Moscow licking its wounds, Russia’s threat to Moldova via the separatist region of Transnistria would be greatly weakened. The Baltic states are already protected from Moscow by their membership in NATO, but a Russian loss would allow them to breathe easier. Indeed, because Ukraine is the key to Moscow’s long-term efforts to reestablish effective political control in its neighborhood, Putin’s defeat there would cause Russian pressure to collapse throughout the area. There is a reason why countries throughout the region, from Armenia to Tajikistan, are “talking back” to Moscow more as Russia’s woes in Ukraine have become evident.
Equally promising, a Ukrainian victory could help free Russia from the grip of Putin’s disastrous rule. If Moscow soundly loses the war, he may not survive. This is a scenario the West has fretted about, with some worried that the alternative to Putin could be worse. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, has worried publicly about “humiliating” Putin, and numerous commentators, including Henry Kissinger, have spoken about how Russia must maintain a prominent place in the international security order. But these fears are misplaced. It is Russia, not the West, that is undermining the security framework that has served the world well. And it is hard to see the downsides in Putin’s departure, given the havoc he has wreaked. The last two decades have made clear that Russia’s president oversees a thoroughly corrupt, authoritarian state that is a danger to its own citizens, its neighbors, and all democratic countries.
Ukraine, then, must win completely. The stakes are enormous, and failure would prove costly to the entire world. Such a victory will not be easy; Putin remains dug in, committed to throwing Russian troops at his objectives no matter the human cost. But the Ukrainians can prevail—as long as NATO continues to support their struggle for freedom, democracy, and security.
JOHN HERBST is Senior Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.
DAVID J. KRAMER is Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute and a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the George W. Bush administration.
WILLIAM TAYLOR is a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.